Synopsis: In the near future, Major is the first of her kind: A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals. (Source)
During its original release, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (itself a Manga adaptation) was ahead of its time, a stunning mix of cyberpunk visuals, eastern philosophy and mind-bending action. Since this landmark achievement, the world is a different place, and everything that made the property stand tall, has been filtered through numerous pop media, most notably, The Matrix. Essentially, the world has caught up with the series, and though its ideas are still important, they’ve been deeply explored in myriad of ways. In turn, director Rupert Sanders and co have done the best they could’ve with this latest adaptation, keeping the series’ philosophical core in tact while creating a story that blends numerous elements from the Manga, its anime adaptation and a slew of TV episodes. The result is a faithful homage that at least addresses some heady themes, even if they’ve become common place. Scarlett Johansson is incredible as the titular character, and Sanders’ technical precision is beautiful, even if the film nearly stumbles fatally by the way it handles racial identity and a host of problematic issues.
The plot concerns Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a cyborg with a human brain who is the first of her kind. Originally a human refugee, the Major was saved from a terrorist attack, after a corporation named Hanka deposited her brain into a superhuman, robotic body. Now, the Major works for an elite outfit called Section 9, tasked with policing a world in which technological advances and enhancements have blurred the lines between human and machine. When a conspiracy is uncovered, the Major and her crew are pitted against a formidable cyberterrorist who challenges their allegiances and everything they though they knew.
At the very least, Sanders has streamlined years of lore and mythology into a fast, propulsive action thriller that doesn’t forget the heady ideas that kept the Manga afloat. Unfolding like a procedural, Sanders uses a bevy of imaginative tech to explore a society who compliments human experience with an addiction to pixel-enhanced reality. As you’d expect, this opens up the story to a number of queries, including the fabric of reality, the nature of our souls, and the identities that hang in the balance. There are also some interesting ideas about consent, and, of course, the idea of free will vs. programming. The film does at times overlap with Robocop, but still maintains an identity of its own, dissecting what makes us human. Though much of these ideas occur too rapidly for the film to really dive deep, they’re all in there, amounting to a visceral experience that delivers car-chases, bullet ballet and corporate conspiracy without being completely empty-headed.
In terms of performances, the cast has things handled. Though we can argue about Scarlett Johansson being casted as the Major, the truth is, she’s incredible as the character. As the Major, Johansson’s struggle with identity is the film’s heart and soul, delivering a character who is at odds with who or what she is. From her stilted, robotic mannerisms, to the confusion in her eyes, Johansson makes the Major feel truly alien, taking what she did in Under the Skin and giving it new context. The other standouts are her cohorts in Section 9. Headed by the legendary Beat Takeshi’s Aramaki, anchored by Pilou Asbæk’s loyal Batou, and with some fun moments from Chin Han’s Han, this charismatic crew is strong enough to carry their own film, and you wish the film had more of them. Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelet, as Major’s mother figure and Michael Pitt as the ambiguous Kuze round things out, creating characters who bring a lot of nuance to what isn’t said. Lastly, Kaori Momoi gives the film its most emotional moment, cutting through the spectacle with unmistakable humanity.
So yes, there’s no way this remake could’ve outdone its predecessors, and it sports an intricate blend of CGI and practical artistry, but your enjoyment will depend on how much you can overlook its treatment of sensitive racial issues. Without getting spoilery, the film directly tackles why Major’s shell isn’t Asian, but the answer feels more of a cop out than a genuine revelation. Without a doubt, the idea in place is a fascinating one, but the twist isn’t handled with enough tact or importance to really nail the idea home. Ultimately, the film is well-made and certainly looks the part (at the very least, conjuring some healthy debate) – in this case however, solid, safe execution turns out to be a missed opportunity for something much greater.